Watching Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon in “The Quarry” is like watching two highly qualified surgeons try to jolt a comatose patient back to life. They get the limbs twitching nicely, but the heart never turns over and starts running.
With his tensile edge and thousand-yard stare, Shannon (“The Shape of Water”) is more of a household name, but Whigham (“Joker”) has been equally ubiquitous in shady/stalwart character roles. They’ve each appeared in over 20 movies in the last five years, not counting their TV work, and they’ve crossed paths at least once, in the 2011 sleeper “Take Shelter.” They work hard, they work smart, and they work well — guaranteed goods.
Their pairing gives “The Quarry,” a slow-boil of a suspense drama that arrives on demand April 17, more potential than it’s able to deliver. In the opening scenes, an itinerant preacher (Bruno Bichir) on his way to a new posting in rural West Texas picks up a fugitive from the law (Whigham). We never learn the fugitive’s name, but after the preacher is dispatched, the killer takes on his identity — David Martin — and continues on to the tiny border town of Bevel.
Shannon plays the local law, Chief John Moore, who’s genially corrupt unless you’re Mexican, in which case he’s just corrupt. He enters the picture after “Martin” has his van broken into by the local bad boy, Valentin (Bobby Soto), whose cousin Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is both the new preacher’s landlady and the police chief’s lover. Moreno (“Maria, Full of Grace”; Showtime’s “The Affair”) wears the same dowdy pink bathrobe throughout the movie and her world-weary dialogue is about as imaginative.
The main interest in “The Quarry” lies in watching the two stars come at each other from opposite acting corners of the ring. Whigham plays his character — named only “The Man” in the credits — with a bruised terseness that grows more silent and agonized as the film progresses, as his flock grows, and as another man stands to be punished for the preacher’s sins. “Martin” doesn’t speak Spanish and only one of his congregants (Rose Bianco) speaks English; that and the fact that he has never before cracked open a Bible makes his success in the pulpit more than hard to believe. But Whigham almost convinces a viewer that a man so steeped in guilt might become a nearly Christ-like penitent to his followers.
For his part, Shannon brings a devilish energy that upends the film’s dourer pretensions and gives the pacing a hotfoot. (“You’re not a big smiler, are you? That’s cool,” he drawls to the mysterious new man in town.) Neither actor cares about making his character likable, which is why we’re drawn to them both.
“The Quarry” is based on a 1995 novel by the South African writer Damon Galgut that was filmed once before, in 1998, as a European co-production. The new movie is directed and co-written by Scott Teems, who comes from writing and production work on TV shows like “Rectify” and “Narcos: Mexico.” The format switch may not play to his strengths, which demands a tight visual control to keep the tension up for nearly two hours. With its doomy soundtrack music and overcautious pacing, you can feel “The Quarry” straining for the dust-blown starkness of a parable, or one of those fat-free modern westerns like “Hell or High Water” (2016). But while there’s not much fat here, neither is there much in the way of lean. There are just two key ingredients, and they’re not enough to make a meal.
Directed by Scott Teems. Written by Teems and Andrew Brotzman, based on a novel by Damon Galgut. Starring Shea Whigham, Michael Shannon, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Bobby Soto. Available for rental on cable systems and all streaming-video platforms. 98 minutes. R (some violence and language)